MILWAUKEE, WI — Milwaukee would lose 120 police officer positions through attrition under Mayor Tom Barrett’s proposed $1.55 billion 2021 budget, which he presented to the Common Council on Tuesday.
The Fire Department will lose one engine, which could likely result in a firehouse being closed, and vacant positions will go unfilled in other city departments, Barrett said. There will be an additional fee for street lighting and a $10 increase in the wheel tax.
“I have presented many budgets to the council and we have worked on them together, but this is by far the most sobering one because it’s really the year when our budget challenges have reached a pretty dramatic crescendo,” Barrett told the Journal Sentinel.
The city knew it was going to be facing a difficult budget even before the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout and the marches for racial justice, he said.
Standard & Poor’s also cut the city’s bond rating by two notches from AA- to A, meaning the city’s debt costs are higher. It’s a reflection, Barrett said, that the city has limited sources of revenue and that it has been forced to draw down its reserves.
And its fiscal situation is going to make it difficult to please anyone when it comes to the ongoing debate over policing, whether those who want to see a sharp cut in funding for the Police Department redistributed to other areas or those who want to see an increase, Barrett said.
Even as the department would lose 120 positions, its total budget will drop by less than $1 million from where it is this year, Barrett said.
The proposal comes on the heels of a loss of 60 positions in the 2020 budget, which took the number of sworn positions in the police department from 1,864 to 1,804.
Barrett said the projected sworn strength would now be 1,682.
The 2020 adopted budget allocated $297.4 million to the police department while the proposed 2021 budget would allocate $296.9 million — a drop of $433,822.
“This change is mandated by our current budget reality,” Barrett said. “And as the cost of public safety climbs more and more, we simply don’t have the money to cover these increased expenses.”
Savings that would come from an $8.5 million cut in salaries are reversed by increased police health care and other personnel costs, Barrett said.
A Journal Sentinel examination found that Milwaukee is an outlier among cities with comparable demographics in terms of how much money from its general fund goes to police. In the 2020 budget, the city spent 46% of its general fund on police.
The budget also consolidates 911 dispatchers and operators from the police department and dispatchers from the fire department into a new division within the Fire and Police Commission, the Office of Emergency Communication.
Barrett said the new office would provide “better service in a more cost-effective way. I want shorter wait times, fewer transfers of calls and better overall service for our citizens.”
That change would happen in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Barrett also said he was concerned about the level of militarization in the police department and called for a “dramatic improvement” in the department’s relationship with the community. He also called on the Fire and Police Commission to endorse the “Eight Can’t Wait” reform initiative.
Meanwhile, the cut of a fire engine raises the specter of past fire department losses, including the closure of fire stations.
Barrett ties cuts to stagnant revenue from state
Barrett drew a line from the cuts directly to the stagnant shared revenue coming back to the city from the state and the inability to raise the county sales tax, saying this dearth of funding is affecting services.
“A lot of the changes that you’re going to see in this year’s budget are really driven by that, and the fact of the matter is that we really have very few options,” Barrett said. “So we’re cutting the number of employees, we’re cutting services.”
The state Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, needs to recognize the seriousness of the city’s fiscal situation before it has to make more draconian cuts, Barrett said in his address, which he gave virtually from his City Hall office.
Raising the county sales tax to 1.5% from 0.5% could make it possible to avoid some of those cuts, he said. Municipalities in Milwaukee County would receive a share of the new sales tax revenue.
City leaders are also facing calls to divert $75 million from the police department budget and invest $50 million in public health efforts and $25 million in housing cooperatives. And the Common Council has been exploring a 10% cut in the police budget.
“We’re trying to balance a very, very legitimate desire to have a police department that is more in tune with the community and at the same time have the resources in the police department to address the very, very real concerns that people have, whether it pertains to reckless driving, whether it pertains to burglaries, whether it pertains to car break-ins,” Barrett said. “I can’t ignore that.”
Dale Bormann, president of the Milwaukee Police Association, said Tuesday afternoon that he doesn’t think it’s likely that those 120 positions will be restored during budget discussions.
He said he is looking into the effect of such a cut.
“I’m concerned when there’s any cuts to the police budget,” Bormann said. “A police budget that’s cut is detrimental to the community.”
The police department said in a statement that the cut would “undoubtedly” affect its operations.
“Although the proposed budget cut would undoubtedly impact the operations of the Milwaukee Police Department, we remain committed to working and engaging with our community, elected officials and public safety partners to ensure that all of our neighborhoods are safe, vibrant and livable,” the department said in the statement.
Like Barrett, Common Council leaders pointed to changes at the state as key ways to alter the city’s trajectory.
Common Council President Cavalier Johnson said the primary reason the city is in this position is because of restrictions placed on local governments by the state.
“That creates a lot of difficulty for us to meet the demands that are placed upon us as well as provide the constituent services that our citizens both expect and quite frankly deserve,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s right that we’re being put in a position where we have to make a choice between stripping our public services to our constituents or paying a large pension obligation because we can’t get more money.”
He described Milwaukee as the “canary in the coal mine,” saying other local governments will be grappling with the same issues in years to come if the state doesn’t fix its rules around revenue generation.
That the number of police officers shrinks while the department’s budget does not points to a system that is unsustainable, Johnson said.
He did not know Tuesday if any council members were considering trying to further cut the department or restore any of the positions Barrett has recommended cutting.
Ald. Michael Murphy, who chairs the city’s powerful finance committee, said Barrett’s description of the budget as “sobering” was accurate.
There will be dramatic changes in city services in future years if the state Legislature does not alter its approach, he said, whether by allowing the city greater flexibility in contract negotiations with police and fire unions, increasing shared revenue or allowing for a county sales tax.
Although a segment of the community will probably want a larger cut to the police department than the 120 positions, Murphy said, the total of 180 lost positions over the last two years will have a “material impact on the ability to fight crime.”
“I think they may have thought that that would have (realized) savings to provide additional resources for the Health Department or violence prevention, but because of the financial difficulties the city’s under, there was no savings,” Murphy said.
Tax levy to increase 2.8%, fees increasing
The city’s tax levy would increase 2.8% to $299.2 million, while residents will also see new and increased fees, under Barrett’s proposed budget.
On an average $126,000 home, taxes and fees together would increase about $90 in 2021.
An average residential property is expected to see a property tax increase of about $25. In addition to that, fees are expected to be up about $64.50, including a new fee for street lighting.
The street lighting fee is expected to bring in $10 million for the Department of Public Works. The fee will apply to property owners, including property owners that do not pay taxes but still benefit from the city, Barrett said.
The city, he said, is concerned about the repair schedule for street lights and the engineers it needs.
There will also be a $10 increase in the wheel tax, bringing the total to $30.
$8 million to pension reserve fund
Barrett is also looking to allocate $8 million to the pension reserve fund — money that is meant to help smooth a significant anticipated jump in the city’s annual pension contribution starting in 2023.
Last year, Barrett called for putting $10 million aside in 2020, $22.5 million in 2021 and $33.5 million in 2022 in preparation.
He ultimately proposed $8 million in the 2020 budget and the Common Council did not amend that sum.
“We are going to need the support of the police union, the fire union because they are the prime beneficiaries of this and if they want us to continue to fund the pension, they’re going to have to work with their friends in the Legislature — and they’re much closer to the Republicans than we are — to emphasize just how serious these issues are,” Barrett said.
The city’s fire and police sworn personnel make up the vast majority of the total pension costs.
Barrett is also proposing:
- Using about $6.5 million from a closing tax incremental financing district to strengthen housing and make home ownership more accessible in the city, a measure Barrett called “the bright light in all of this.”
- Allocating $4 million to provide eligible owners financial assistance to replace lead service lines, allowing for the replacement of 1,100 lines.
- Keeping library hours and branches intact.
- Allocating $8 million for high-intensity road repaving and $600,000 to alley repairs.
- Creating a new Office of Equity and Inclusion to focus on equal rights and accountability in city government. The office will include the city’s Office of African American Affairs, the Fatherhood Initiative and the Equal Rights Commission.
- Putting $250,000 into a pilot initiative for outreach and access to mental health treatment.
- A new 414LIFE site on the city’s south side.
A virtual public hearing on the proposed budget will take place at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6. Residents who want to speak at the hearing can register online.
Only those who want to speak need to register ahead of the hearing, and registration will close two hours before the hearing begins. Speakers will each be limited to two minutes.